At the end of 2018, there can be no more pretense about describing the main threat to U.S. security in 2019.
That threat can be summed up in the following five words: the psyche of President Trump.
At a time when a combative China is rising, a revanchist Russia is meddling, a terrorist threat still simmers, and technology is remaking the globe in ways that will upend our society, America is adrift. This is not because the United States is incapable of handling the threats it faces. Rather, the primary danger arises from the character of the man in the White House.
We have entered an era when long-range strategic thinking has never been more vital, but the United States has a president who thinks only of the short-term. He openly scorns our alliances and prefers one-on-one dealings with despots.
The biggest foreign-policy question of 2019 will be who, if anyone, can effectively confront Trump’s dangerous delusions. The onus, I believe, rests on GOP senators who may have backed him but now recognize he threatens the republic. Perhaps only a real threat of impeachment can penetrate the foreign-policy bubble in which the president resides.
Trump has no comprehension he’s been suckered over and over again by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and others. On the contrary, he tweeted just before Christmas that “AMERICA IS RESPECTED AGAIN!” – oblivious to the disastrous impact his erratic moves have on America’s standing abroad.
But what is even more dangerous is the fact Trump believes he is a genius. He thinks he can make brilliant deals without advice from seasoned advisers (whom he fires almost as often as if he were still running The Apprentice).
With the mentality of a Manhattan real estate dealer, he views foreign policy as a series of disconnected transactions measured by whether America makes a financial profit (or whether his brand is burnished). The concept of an interconnected world, and a bigger strategic picture, seems to elude him.
Newly fired Defense Secretary James Mattis perfectly described the risk of this kind of transactional mentality, in July 2017: “If you don’t know where you’re going, good luck when you take off on your journey.”
A look back at some of Trump’s key foreign-policy moves in 2018 shows the security threat he poses in the coming two years.
1. The Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un in June made clear how easily a dictator can play this ill-informed president. The president trumpeted that he had ended the North Korean nuclear threat, but in reality he got no promises from Kim to destroy his arsenal. Negotiations have stalled. But Trump’s seal of approval to Kim gave Russia and China the green light to loosen sanctions, and the dangerous Kim is on his way to becoming an accepted nuclear power.
2. At the NATO summit in July, Trump displayed open contempt for Germany and other NATO members. There is nothing wrong with asking allies to up their defense spending (although Trump continues to spew fake numbers). But as Moscow and Beijing are openly trying to weaken America and Europe, NATO’s value lies in uniting nations that respect democratic values. Trump’s approach will fracture the alliance, to the glee of Putin and Xi.
3. After dissing NATO, the president went to a Helsinki summit with Putin, where he proclaimed he trusted the Russian leader more than he trusted his own U.S. intelligence agencies. Trump appears incapable of grasping how he is being manipulated by Putin, who is once again nibbling at Ukraine and expanding Russia’s influence in the Mideast.
4. Trump’s tariff war with China confronts a real problem with the wrong tools. The best way to squeeze China into better behavior would be a multilateral approach with European and other allies who are also angered by Beijing’s technology theft and closed markets. Instead, Trump tries to go solo, and backs Xi into a nationalist corner with open threats.
5. Trump’s off-the-cuff, Twitter decision to swiftly pull U.S. forces out of Syria, made without consulting any of his top military or civilian advisers or our Kurdish allies, sums up all his flaws. Acting alone, the president showed total ignorance of the cost of a precipitous U.S. exit. These include Turkey’s lust to kill Kurds, and the benefits to ISIS and Iran of a U.S. retreat. His rash move will further convince Mideast and Asian allies that they cannot trust America, but must turn reluctantly to Moscow and Beijing.
To sum up, an ill-informed president who is easily manipulated by despots endangers the country (not to mention the economy, as he talks down the stock market). His solo policy-making could lead to unintended clashes with Beijing or Moscow. It definitely will undermine America in the long run, strengthening the illiberal, undemocratic trends promoted by Xi and Putin.
Whether GOP senators will have the guts to stand up to Trump is a huge question. If they don’t, they will share the blame for America’s declining global influence. Trump’s unchecked foreign-policy delusions will make for a dicey new year.